Refreshing change at the Met: two bright but starless operas

The Metropolitan Opera has not been having a good year artistically. But at least the new productions have relieved an otherwise dreary string of middle-to low-rung operatic evenings.

The first, "Parade," was a real change --enchanting productions of two small-scale operas, offered with no glamour stars, and triumphant nonetheless. The new production of Verdi's "La Traviata" is not quite so daring, and not quite so successful, but a solid achievement just the same.

This new production's predecessor, with ponderous sets by Cecil Beaton and direction by Alfred Lunt, deteriorated quickly, and ended up looking tatty. Tanya Moiseiwitsch's sets for this new outing are handsome and to the point, and should not look shabby too quickly. She and director Colin Graham have tried to contain the size of the sets and direction by using a smaller proscenium, complete with fragile gauze curtain. The rooms are all a bit large, but nothing as unsuitable as the multilevel chateaux masquerading as Parisian town houses that Beaton designed.

Mr. Graham has also given a good deal of thought to the opera, its motivations, what Verdi is aiming at in his musical setting -- the mark of a real opera director, not just a theater man. In all, he has offered the Met a lucid, no-nonsense, no-gimmick, straightforward "Traviata." Unfortunately, there is an almost total absence of the right sense of period or of locale for any of the characters. One would never know this is 19th-century France (or Italy!), so much does it hint at a staid British mood. From the forced goings-on --meant to be politely shocking -- at Violetta's soiree that opens that opera right through to the end, there is a starched-collar decorum about the entire proceedings.

Vocally, it was a very good "Traviata," though even this opera has become a member of those hard-to-cast works that are becoming all too common today. Where once we had several fine Violettas in any given season, recently, almost none -- with the exception of Adriana Maliponte -- have been remotely near the mark.

Ileana Cotrubas is probably the best-known Violetta of the day, even though the role does not lie uniformly well in her voice. She has the facility for the fireworks of the first act, and the pathos for the last act, but the middle act -- this new production restores the three-act opera Verdi wrote rather than making two acts out of the two second-act scenes -- is awkward for her.But she is a committed artist, a splendid imaginative actress, and generally a most convincing pining heroine.

Placido Domingo was somewhat out of voice at the third performance -- as were all the principals. Domingo's top register takes on a hollow, forced quality. Otherwise, the newly slimmed-down tenor looked the part, acted it convincingly, and was exemplary on just about all counts. Cornell MacNeil's voice has had quite a wobble of late, but he had it under control here. It cost him something in dramatic clarity, declamatory forcefulness, and tonal variety. He had troubles near the end of "Di provenza" Germont's big Act II aria.

The secondary casting was all quite off the mark in several instances, adding to the Met roster of several voices that simply do not belong there. This is alarming, since the strength or weakness of any opera house lies in its core of supporting singers.

James Levine's conducting was clear, rhythmically accurate, often quite lovely. But it lacked a touch of poetry, and he tended to swamp his singers more often than necessary --this season.

What the Met has in a solid "Traviata" which any cast should be able to fit into easily, one that should do the Met well for many a season.

Which is more than can be said for the production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut ," new last season. Already, the deadly pall of routine has put a stultifying chill on the entire evening -- one that offered a good deal of magic last season.

James Levine is about the only carry-over from that production. He thrives on good casts, molding the music to that specific one. He held his own handsomely, but his cast was well below form.

Teresa Zylis-Gara has never had her finest Met moments in Puccini, try as she will. She did not display the personality to make much of Puccini's Manon, or the stylistic facility to make the vocal line melt and caress. Giuliano Ciannella lacked the vocal weight to cope with Des Grieux. Too often the tenor, in his first assumption of a major role at the Met, sang his high notes very sharp of pitch, and seemed to tire well before the evening was over.

Pablo Elvira repeated his suave, his small-scaled Lescaut, and Renato Capecchi remained a well-characterized Geronte. The sets retain their impact, but details of Gian-Carlo Menotti's staging have already gone by the wayside.

And gone by the wayside is any semblance of a solid production in Strauss' "Salome." It is unsightly, and, as seen with the second cast of the season, bears slender resemblance at times to Strauss' opera. Nonetheless, some performances of opera go so far off the mark that they take on a gripping fascination of their own. Such was the case here.

Grace Bumbry no longer bothers to suggest the young, innocent Salome, rather the grand prima donna, offering a splendidly insular, impulsive performance in which anything she felt like doing, she did! Vocally, she was in generous form despite a few erratic high notes, and that was a great plus.

Robert Nagy, the Herod, had strong ideas about the role, which he elaborated with some tough-to-listen-to vocalizing. Gwynn Cornell was a subdued Herodias. Bernd Weikl remains one of the finest Jochanans around --superbly vocalized and strongly acted.

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